The house is quiet as you enter, so much quieter than last year when it was filled with laughter and joy and the scent of home-baked gingerbread. Your entry is silent too, your visit unseen, your touch barely felt on the shoulders of the father and little girl who live there.
They’re hanging ornaments onto the tree, the father lifting the child to reach the higher branches. You helped them find the perfect one, not too tall and not too short, but just right — thick and lush with needles that won’t fall off too soon. You guided the axe and held back the child so the tree would fall without incident, and you walked beside them all the way home, making sure they found the path in the snow.
One would think they’d be smiling now, on the cusp of the holy night, surrounded by tinsel and tradition, candles glowing, ham roasting in the oven, a pile of presents under the tree, and the most important thing — each other — but something is holding them back.
You wish you could give them what they want, but you can’t. That was made very clear when you asked. She’s where she belongs now — as are you, even if they can’t see your shining company.
What can you give them, then?
There’s not much to be done indoors. Maybe you can do something to the trees outside. Don’t they look a little plain? Yes, outside your hands won’t be quite so tied by all those pesky celestial rules.
Top to bottom, left to right, you sweep the sky and begin with the stars. It’s time for them to come out of hiding. You turn them up, brighter, brighter still, each more brilliant than the last.
You sing and the birds come, landing on the shoulders of the snowman like a living mantle of feathers. You sit them on branches like colourful baubles — bluebirds, yellow tits, red cardinals. What fine ornaments they make. On a treetop here and a treetop there, you place a crow or a magpie. They are good at keeping watch, telling you what they see, but not as good as you.
And then, you let it snow.
There they are, now, two faces in the window. If that’s not wonder on their faces, you don’t know joy from glee.
What’s that chirping chorus behind you? Oh the birds. A thin layer of snow covers their feathers, and they are beginning to look like fluffy snowballs. You whisper a word of gratitude, snap your fingers, and off they fly.
Rather than gaze at the stars you brought out, the child’s eyes remain fixed on the snowman. Her smile is gone.
She’s not sad about the missing nose, is she? A hare worked hard at getting it. No, of course this isn’t about a silly carrot. It’s that long red scarf. Your wings fold down your back, their tips touching the ground — looking at the scarf makes you sad too.
The girl comes outside, dressed in a grey woolly coat and a little red scarf of her own. Standing in the fresh snow, she puts her arms around the snowman. Her eyes are shut, but you cannot unsee the tear rolling down her cheek, a molten diamond in the snow. You place a hand on her shoulder, wanting to infuse her with your own light and happiness, but instead you feel her longing, so shapeless and heavy that nothing can lift it.
Still, you must try. Is it not your duty and calling?
With a tender kiss on a cold cheek, you wake the snowman. Snowy arms rise from his sides and wrap around the little girl. The child snuggles against the length of the long red scarf.
She opens her eyes, clear and blue like small ponds before frost. She shivers. Is that a hint of blue on her lips? The snowman’s arms remain locked around her. He doesn’t let go.
He won’t let go because snowmen are made of snow and sticks and carrots, and because snowmen love children, almost as much as you do. It is every snowman’s dream to hug a child, especially the child who made them.
Would you please let go of the child, you ask the snowman once, twice, three times. Finally, with a puff of snow and slumped shoulders, he does.
The little girl sprints toward the house shouting daddy, daddy. The snowman’s arms, still outstretched after her, hold nothing but air.
You tilt your head, curl a golden lock around your finger, and consider the situation. The little girl has seen a living snowman. She will tell her father. The father will come out and see him and–
Your wings droop lower than ever as you realise you’ve done something you weren’t supposed to. The rules don’t explicitly deny kissing life into snowmen, but you’re pretty sure they are going to add it now. How did this happen? You only did what felt right. Being mostly made of compassion and light-stuff can be so confusing sometimes.
One day you’ll learn, they always tell you, but first you’ve got to fix this.
How will you fix this? HOW? Not by flying home to play your harp until Spring melts the problem away. Not by waiting for the child to grow up and forget about the living snowman, just like most darling children forget about the magic they once knew.
No, no, no. That probably would not work.
You lure the snowman deep into the forest. Behind you, the spruces thicken. You ask them to step in the way so the child cannot follow his trail.
In a lovely starlit clearing, you let the snowman see you. He leans in closer, unafraid. He may be new, but the snow he’s made of has melted many times, and he holds no grudges with the sun. You hug him and tell him you’re sorry. With a tinny tremble creeping into the melody of your voice, you tell him to lie down. And then you hold him in your arms, in your dazzling warmth, until he melts away and there’s nothing left but the long red scarf.
You pick it up and remember the woman again, the way you held her in your arms and tried to chase her illness away with a high fever. You remember her hot cheeks, damp skin, the waning spark in her tired eyes, the pale faces of her family by her bedside. And you could do nothing, nothing, nothing, but hold her and watch. And when it was over — or only starting, as it goes for those who are left behind — you spread your wings and shook the room with a thousand feathers of numbness and comfort, peace and light.
You squeeze the scarf tighter in your fist–
“Why did you kill the snowman?”
You turn around. The child frowns at you, her smile so far away you might never find it. Her father, wearing a similar expression, stands beside her.
They have seen you in your true form, shining and resplendent and impossible to their eyes. Beneath your feet, snow has melted, grass grown, and a sprinkle of star-shaped flowers are blooming.
Time to improvise.
You smile sweetly and say, “Why does anything happen in a dream?”
And a dream it shall be, to them, to all. You drape the long red scarf around your neck and let her in. Your face becomes her face, your wings her wings. The man and girl leap to you and hold you in their arms, in their loving warmth, so close that you’re nervous of singeing them with yours.
But dreams must be dreams, transcendent and fleeting. With a flutter of your wings, the father and child close their eyes and fall asleep in your arms. You set them down, gently, onto the patch of flowers.
With a whistle, you call forth a great elk to carry the father home on his back while you take the child. On the way, you pass the trees that could not do as you asked, or perhaps they, too, were swayed by the child’s yearning to follow the snowman and get back her mother’s scarf.
The girl will find it in the morning, right where it was, wrapped around the neck of the snowman she thinks she made.
Back at the house, you tuck the father and girl safely into their beds, blow out the candles, and sit in the dark, thinking how next year you’ll do better. Not more, but better.
And until the smell of ham from the oven conveniently wakes them so that they won’t miss the rest of Christmas Eve, you do nothing but watch them — still smiling in their sleep.